Light Lager or Dark Lager?
That's no longer the only question being asked in the Czech Republic as adventuresome brewers spread their wings in a developing brewpub environment
by Jack Curtin
CELEBRATOR BEER NEWS
Pivovar U Fleku, the historic pub on Kremencová Street in Prague, has been pouring its beer in that city for more than 500 years. And while U Fleku serves mostly tourists these days since most locals find it too expensive, a centuries-old tourist trap is still, y'know, centuries-old and needs must be seen when the opportunity presents itself. It was therefore the logical starting point for a Sunday of brewpub visits and Czech beer tasting for a group of drinks writers visiting Czech Republic last spring to meet with Josef Tolar, brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar in Ceské Budejovice, on a trip hosted by US importer Distinguished Brands International.
The journalistic contingent put itself in the hands of Honza Kocka, a Czech citizen and beer industry consultant, for the day. I first met Kocka at Michael Jackson's annual National Geographic lecture in Washington, DC, in 2002, where he'd been instrumental in bringing in several Czech beers for the accompanying tasting. His life's dream is to drag his county's beer scene into the 21st century. Besides holding down a full time job with the Czech national airline, he has also created and maintains his nation's largest beer website (www.svetpiva.cz), opened the first homebrew shop in Prague shortly after our visit (www.homebrewing.cz) and initiated tasting sessions and educational seminars for the public. Obviously, he was more than happy to show us U Fleku and two of his favorite destinations within Prague's developing brewpub scene, plus introduce us to some of the Republic's high-end bottled beers.
Gathering at U Fleku, we wandered briefly through the huge, multi-roomed restaurant and outdoor garden on our way to a private tour. That began with a short filmed history and glasses of their justly famous dark lager, a beer which was first made in 1843, the same year that Pilsner Urquell was introduced. We then moved on to the beautifully maintained old brewhouse, which dates back to 1900; it underwent major reconstruction in 1986, resulting in a modern brewery which is also obviously very old. The beer is fermented in open oaken tanks, then lagered for a month. I am told there is a similar tour available to the public (for a price) and would highly recommend it.
Beginning the day at U Fleku was something of a "there's nothing new under the sun" moment, but the focus on the past changed entirely at our next stop, where we spent most of the afternoon. This was Pivovarsky Dum ("Home of the Brewer") on Lipova Street, which opened in 1998. Brewer Jan Suran poured both his light and dark lagers for us over lunch, the former being the consensus choice for the best beer we had during the entire trip. He also poured samples of several of his more adventuresome brews, made with wheat, banana, coffee, sour cherry, nettle and chili. The nettle version was interesting; the others...well, they were, shall we say, courageous. Suran informed us that the pub has enjoyed a slow, steady growth. "Each year, a new generation becomes old enough to drink. Those younger people are interested in beers which are different, and that is what we offer them."
Following lunch, Kocka brought out several bottles each of roughly 20 beers for possible sampling. Among those we tasted were Staroprmen's Ostravar (6% abv) and the two strongest beers made in the Czech Republic, Knight's Lager (9% abv) and Double (10% abv) from Primator, of which the former was more drinkable by far. We ended with several beers from Pivovar Herold, a 500-year old brewery in Breznice which is currently being managed by American David Porteous, who fortuitously showed up and chatted with us as we were sampling his wares. We had Herold Bohemian Black Lager, Herold Bohemian Wheat Lager and Herold Midnight Wheat, of which I thought the Bohemian Black was outstanding.
The survivors (it had been a whirlwind five days, including attending a national hockey championship game and the sort of late night meandering beer folk do in a rarely visited town) moved on to our third and final stop, Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, located near and named after the Strahov Monastery, which was built in the 12th century at the highest point on the approach route to the 9th century Prague Castle. It is a beautiful pub, dating back to the 17th century, and was completely renovated and modernized in 2001. We were greeted by brewmaster Martin Matuska and enjoyed what was probably the best dark lager we had during the trip, as well as a sample of his amber lager, the pub's two staples. Matuska also does stronger Christmas and Easter beers which, he says, customers are now asking for throughout the year.
A recent email exchange with Kocka suggests that beer progress continues apace. "Pivovarsky Dum is brewing two new specialty beers for me," he wrote. "We are bringing them to the market this summer, a Weizenbock and a Rauchweizen. And we plan to do an American Pale Ale and an IPA for later this year." Based on that, and the evidence of that grand Sunday afternoon more than a year past, I feel secure in assuring beer travelers contemplating a trip to the Czech Republic that its enduring beer culture is slowly moving beyond the traditional "we have light lager and dark lager, what more could you want?" attitude which has dominated for centuries while still maintaining its historical identity.
And I'd call that win-win.
Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin
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